HISTORY

When Congress Slut-Shamed Ingrid Bergman

It was one of the more shameful moments in congressional history: A senator called out the iconic actress for having an affair, branding her a “powerful influence for evil.”

The camera loved Ingrid Bergman. Her Ilsa Lund, a mélange of iridescent eyes, nourishing smile, and disarming vulnerability, glides across the screen like a seraph, bathed in celestial light. And so the Swede, with her turns in Casablanca, Gaslight, and Notorious, to name a few, reached the pinnacle of her profession. Bergman was the anti-Stanwyck; a wholesome beauty that proved an ideal fit for Hays Code Hollywood. According to a 1943 article in Life magazine, her brain surgeon husband, Petter Lindström, “regards himself as the undisputed head of the family, an idea that Ingrid accepts cheerfully.” But Bergman, unbeknownst to her legion of adoring fans, possessed an untamable spirit—one that is dutifully captured in the new documentary Ingrid Bergman: In Her Own Words. Directed by Stig Björkman and narrated by countrywoman Alicia Vikander, the film is culled from Bergman’s home movies, diaries, and intimate letters to her friends and lovers.

It’s the tale of a gal from Stockholm who grew up obsessed with the story of Joan of Arc, marveling at how this young, rebellious woman followed the voices inside her head, social mores be damned.

“I don’t want any roots,” Bergman says in the film. “I want to be free.”

And, despite her marriage to Lindström—which produced a daughter, Pia—Bergman lived freely, much like many of her male movie star contemporaries.

In June 1945, while on a lengthy tour entertaining American troops in Europe, she fell in love with legendary photojournalist Robert Capa. The tryst was short-lived, however, as Bergman recalls how the swashbuckling lensman “couldn’t tie himself down.”

She’d won an Oscar (for Gaslight) and purchased her family a luxurious home fitted with a gigantic pool in Benedict Canyon, yet still suffered from what she calls “a daily sadness.”

“I never understood the kind of happiness I was longing for,” she recalls in the film. “We finally got a house, fixed it up the way we wanted. But then that bird of passage started to flex its wings again.”

Not only did the camera love Bergman, but she loved it back. Perhaps this came on account of her father, a gifted photographer who’d regularly take her portrait, before passing away when she was 13. Bored with the fantasy of Hollywood, she became enamored with the grittiness of Italian neorealist cinema—most notably the films Rome, Open City, and Paisan. She penned a note to their director, Roberto Rossellini, expressing her desire to work with him. And shortly thereafter, as they filmed Stromboli on the titular volcanic island, far from the prying paparazzi, the two fell in love.

When word got out of their extramarital affair, as well as Bergman’s pregnancy, it became an international superscandal. Remember Hugh Grant and Divine Brown? Multiply that by 50. This was 1950, and as Bergman wrote, “In those days, it was a shock to leave a husband and a child and fall in love with a man, and openly show the world that she had fallen in love and not deny the baby to be born.”

Bergman, an A-list Hollywood actress, was eviscerated in the tabloids, who painted her as a wanton harlot. The insanity reached a fever pitch when, on March 14, 1950, Senator Edwin C. Johnson (D-CO), a rank moralist who opposed FDR’s New Deal policies, slut-shamed the actress on the Senate floor.

“Mr. President, now that the stupid film about a pregnant woman and a volcano [Stromboli] has exploited America with the usual finesse, to the mutual delight of RKO and the debased Rossellini, are we merely to yawn wearily, greatly relieved that this hideous thing is finished and then forget it? I hope not. A way must be found to protect the people in the future against that sort of gyp,” he proclaimed.

Sen. Johnson then proposed a bill wherein movies would be approved for licenses based on the moral compasses of those behind the picture, insisting that Bergman “had perpetrated an assault upon the institution of marriage,” and going so far as to call her “a powerful influence for evil.”

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The irony in all this is that Bergman had been Johnson’s favorite actress, so he claimed to have felt deceived by her so-called lascivious behavior. He even sought to ban Bergman from ever appearing in a major Hollywood motion picture again.

“I was a danger for American womanhood,” Bergman recalls in the film. “Even my voice over the radio was supposed to be dangerous… Of course I was hurt, but I didn’t think that what I had done was so much other people’s business. I thought that you should look upon an actress as an actress. What she does on the screen or on the stage, that’s what you pay for, and that’s what you get. If you don’t like the performance you can walk out. But to criticize people’s private life I thought was wrong, to such an extent that even a senator in Washington gets on the floor: ‘Out of Ingrid Bergman’s ashes will grow a better Hollywood.’”

Because of her public demonization, Bergman stayed abroad from 1949 until 1957, when she returned to the Big Apple to accept the New York Film Critics Circle Award for her dazzling performance in Anastasia.

“When the moment came when I had to face America again, to arrive alone and say, ‘Here I am, and you can throw your stones or you can accept me again,’ I was very, very nervous, because I knew I was to meet the American audiences, the American press,” she recalls in the film.

When asked at her press conference in New York whether she has any regrets over the past few years, Bergman laughed.

“No, I have no regrets at all,” she said, unleashing that radiant smile. “I regret the things I didn’t do—not what I did. I have done what I felt like.”

Twenty-two years after Sen. Johnson’s disgusting tirade, on April 19, 1972, Senator Charles Percy (R-IL) read an apology to Bergman on the Senate floor.

“Mr. President, one of the world’s loveliest, most gracious and most talented women was made the victim of bitter attack in this Chamber 22 years ago. Today I would like to pay long overdue tribute to Ingrid Bergman, a true star in every sense of the word.“I know that across the land, millions of Americans would wish to join me in expressing their regrets for the personal and professional persecution that caused Ingrid Bergman to leave this country at the height of her career,” he continued. “Miss Bergman is not only welcome in America; we are deeply honored by her visits here.”

Bergman, ever the class act, penned a letter to Congress from New York accepting the apology, writing, “Dear Senator Percy, my war with America was over long ago. The wounds, however, remained. Now, because of your gallant gesture with your generous and understanding address to the Senate, they are healed forever.”